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Thursday, April 9, 2009

What is a boondoggle?

I'm sure you've heard this term thrown out there before. It seems as though any time a project is proposed, that a certain constituency doesn't like, they simply throw out the descriptive word "boondoggle" of said project and poof - it must be true.

After all, the stadiums were boondoggles. So was the convention center expansion, the 2002 Metro Moves plan, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Fountain Square renovation and now of course so is the proposed Cincinnati Streetcar.

Fountain Square in 2008 (post renovation)

Technically speaking a boondoggle is "an unnecessary or wasteful project or activity." More informally speaking, Wikipedia cites that the term first made its appearance in the 1930's during the projects of the New Deal. A New York Times report, at the time, reported that over $3 million was spent on teaching the jobless how to make boon doggles.

What I wonder is whether the term has lost its value? Can we apply this term and rallying cry to projects preemptively? If so, how does it differ from someone else's opinion that the project may be a roaring success?

While in some instances the proclamation of a particular project being a boondoggle may have been valid, there are just as many opposite examples. One of the most recent examples is the renovation of Fountain Square*.

Many of the opponents, to the project, saw it as being destined to failure. That the new design would be worse than the previous one, that the new management would be damaging to activity on the Square and that the private investments wouldn't occur around the Square. These opponents have been wrong on all accounts, but are still claiming every new idea to be a boondoggle without any real accountability.

In the case of the Cincinnati Streetcar, opponents use boondoggle in combination with "trolley" and/or "choo choo train" in virtually everything they write on the topic. Words are a powerful thing and language is often manipulated to advance one's interests on an issue. This is fine, but the distinction should be made...and the problem is that these techniques/strategies come at the expense of the center city, Cincinnati politicians, local government and the mentalities of all Cincinnatians.

Just because someone somewhere cites that a project is one of those dreaded boondoggles does not make it so. Do some research and learn about the topic on your own free of bias, then make up your own opinion. The Cincinnati Streetcar has had several studies done on it...and the results are in. Economics, the environment, transportation and livability issues are all on the project's side. Don't take my word for it for yourself and make up your own mind.

Economic Analysis
UC Economic Study (confirming previous study's findings)
Feasibility Study
Climate Protection Action Plan
Growth & Opportunities (GO) Report for Cincinnati

All of these studies find the streetcar project to be a positive project for the city/region in regards to their specific interests. The studies are all specific to the Cincinnati region. All documents are in PDF form.

NOTE: Fountain Square has seen the recent activity of the following businesses that have cited the renovation of Fountain Square as being instrumental to their operations...Chipotle, Potbelly, McCormick & Schmick's, Boi Na Braza, Via Vite, Tazza Mia, Ingredients, Joseph A. Bank, Graeter's, Morton's the Steakhouse, 5/3 Banking Center, Jones the Florist, Cadillac Ranch, Oceanaire, Bootsy's and Nada...just to name a few.


Lauren said...

it's only a "boondoggie" is nothing good comes from it...aka Metro Moves. There is good information in that plan, but did anyone ever use it? Where any improvements made? They've poured a lot of time, effort, and money into the streetcar and as long as it moves beyond a "plan" that's a big step forward for Cincinnati!

All I ask for is that is done right so they can expand it into a streetcar/light rail network for the entire city.

Paul Wilham said...

Many people in this city lack any "vision' they are fearful of any kind of change and seem to only be concerned that it "might" affect them.

This attitude which is also found in city government makes it near impossible for the city to move forward and become the world class city it could be.

While other cities like Indianapolis, Louisville and Columbus are viewed as "forward thinking" and unafraid to try things, Cincinnati is 20 yrs behind the time. In any other city like Cincinnati. OTR would be full of million dollar restored brownstones and luxury infill by now. Not Only would they have a streetcar, BUT the subway would be part of a light rail system.

However the frustration of dealing with a city that doesnt get the value of historic tourism or redevelopment, causes many to simply go elsewhere. Because of that we all lose.

Quimbob said...

Going from this definition I interpret boondoggle to refer to an "endless" busy work project.
I really see DeWine's project to put county expenditures online, G.A.S.P., as a boondoggle, as the average Joe isn't going to understand the background of the spending well enough to make any use of the info but the county employees will need to take time and effort to update and maintain the website forever.
Oddly, the people who love to holler "BOONDOGGLE" at the drop of a hat, loved that project. I am assuming their love for it was due to their being able to obtain out of context info for their populist hysteria campaigns.
Highways could easily be considered boondoggles.
Iraq could be considered a boondoggle.
PR voting would be a boondoggle.
But the boondogglesayers don't gripe about those issues - indeed, they support them.

5chw4r7z said...

We can only hope the Streetcar turns out to be as big a boondoggle as Fountain Square has been. The criticism has slowed to a trickle because they've been consistently wrong.
Was it 311 who said "f--- the naysayers cus they don't mean a thing"

Dave Reid said...

Great post. Here in Milwaukee we are in a very similar situation with attempting to build a streetcar as well. I'm sure we'll start hearing "boondoggle" tossed around (already see the cho-cho stuff), and well hopefully we can get through this tactic and see the projects actually happen.

CityKin said...

The biggest boondoggle ever was the 50 year sprawl of paper houses, burger pits and asphalt over good farmland while solid city neighborhoods were left to rot.

CityKin said...

Also, I agree with Quim. One of the biggest problems with bureacracies is the increasing production of reports and data to "prove" that workers are being productive. Books have been written about this problem, which is inherent to any large institution. Apparently Dewine hasn't read up on the subject.

Mark Miller said...

It's well beyond a boondoggle. It's almost criminal that our city's bureaucratic BS made it cheaper and easier to build from scratch than to simply maintain existing building stock. See Paul Wilham's blog for a recent case in point.

Also I need to clear up some misconceptions about GASP. The county has used a computerized system for decades to manage procurements and payments. DeWine's measure authorized a one-time expenditure of a few thousand bucks to program a web front end for the existing system.

Requisitions and purchase orders are entered like they always have been. Only now, instead of the info only being available to bureacrats, anyone who wants to can view it. A background applet automatically posts all new entries to the web page without any additional staff effort.

You guys seemed to be pretty receptive to the principle of government transparency when Obama was pushing it. Do you just hate DeWine?

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